Senate ends logjam over McConnell roads bill

Senate ends logjam over McConnell roads bill
© Greg Nash

The Senate late Wednesday voted to move forward with a six-year federal highway bill, giving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems confront Kelly after he calls some immigrants 'lazy' McConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 MORE a significant victory even as his legislation encounters stiff opposition from his own party in the House.

In a 62-36 vote, the Senate agreed to begin debate on the legislation.

A day after voting against the motion, liberal and centrist Democrats provided the crucial votes to advance the bill, brokered by McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerDems face hard choice for State of the Union response Billionaire Steyer to push for Dem House push Billionaire Steyer announces million for Dem House push MORE (D-Calif.).

Only six Republicans voted against the motion, compared to 11 a day earlier —including McConnell, who did so to preserve his ability to bring the bill up for another vote.

The vote signals that McConnell likely has the support to move the legislation through the Senate, something he’s vowed to do even if it requires keeping senators in Washington this weekend.

That would set up a confrontation with the House, where Republicans are backing a five-month extension of federal highway funding that they’ve already approved.

The Senate bill’s path appeared rocky earlier in the day after several meetings failed to win Democratic support for the legislation. 

McConnell, intent on passing what would be the first long-term highway bill since 2005, whipped Democratic votes throughout the afternoon. 

Democrats and Republicans in the lower chamber united in objecting to the Senate bill on Wednesday, with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) saying it wouldn’t fly. 

“There’s ways to deal with it. You can go to conference. We can do ours,” he told reporters following a private House GOP conference meeting. “But I don’t see the Senate [bill] flying in the House.”

Rank-and-file House conservatives bashed the Senate bill for relying on raising revenue rather than cutting spending to cover the costs.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a leading House conservative. “If you’re not going to pay for it and it’s got tax increases in it, of course we’re against that. Our leadership has been pretty strong. Look at what the Ways and Means chairman has said. Look at what the majority leader has said.”

McConnell has pledged to allow a vote on an amendment to the highway bill that would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, something that would also raise objections in the House.

Jordan said that whatever passes the Senate should not include a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank.

House Democratic leaders also began lining up against the McConnell-Boxer bill, objecting to its revenue provisions.

“In my 22-plus years here in Congress, I’ve never seen a situation where there’s been so much political angst about doing what we need to do to get people to pay for their use of our roads and highways and mass transit system,” Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Regulation: Labor IG to investigate tip-pooling rule | Mulvaney reportedly puts brakes on Equifax probe | Dems want new restrictions on Comcast Becerra, other state AGs call on DOL to scrap tip-pooling rule California considers state-run bank for pot businesses MORE (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said after a closed-door meeting of his caucus in the Capitol.

He highlighted a proposal that would take money from the Social Security trust fund, arguing that any tweaks to the retirement benefit program should go toward bolstering it.

“I’ll be darned if I’m going to let someone take money that’s for Social Security to use it [on highways] because they’re not willing to do the right thing to impose a user fee so we can fix our roads,” he said.

Liberals in the Senate have also raised objections to that provision, raising questions over whether it could be tweaked.

McConnell’s plans for weekend work suggest he intends to jam the House by passing the six-year measure and then daring the House not to pass it, with just days until federal infrastructure funding expires at the end of the month.

McCarthy and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell: 'Whoever gets to 60 wins' on immigration Overnight Defense: Latest on spending fight - House passes stopgap with defense money while Senate nears two-year budget deal | Pentagon planning military parade for Trump | Afghan war will cost B in 2018 House passes stopgap spending measure with defense money MORE (R-Wis.) are pushing for the Senate to accept a five-month patch for highway funding — approved by the House last week — that would give them more time to negotiate a fully paid-for, six-year highway bill.

The last time McConnell tried to jam the House, on legislation extending the National Security Agency’s surveillance authority, it didn’t work. A coalition of conservatives and Democrats rebuffed him in his own chamber by defeating his preferred version of the bill.

“This is starting to look a lot like the second coming of FISA,” said a senior Democratic aide, referring to a law that authorizes covert surveillance. “There’s no clear plan. The Republicans running for president are champing at the bit to advance their presidential campaigns at the expense of their leader, and McConnell and [Speaker John] BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbying World Freedom Caucus wants budget reforms attached to debt limit increase Trey Gowdy announces retirement from Congress MORE [R-Ohio] seem to be on different planets.”

The Export-Import Bank remains a huge bone of contention for conservatives in both chambers. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSasse statement: Trump nominee who spread conspiracy theories has a ‘tinfoil hat’ Coalition of 44 groups calls for passage of drug pricing bill For the sake of our democracy, politicians must stop bickering MORE (R-Texas), who is running for president, says he will use all tools at his disposal to block an amendment to the highway bill that would reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which saw its charter expire last month.

McConnell has promised to give supporters of the bank, such as vulnerable GOP incumbent Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (Ill.), a chance to vote on it.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the White House will “insist” that the highway bill includes language reauthorizing the bank.

During an event with small-business leaders in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, Obama warned “we cannot unilaterally disarm” by shuttering the export-financing agency while foreign competitors still receive government subsidies.  

Conservatives have worked for years to kill the bank and gave little indication Wednesday they would vote for a highway bill that brings it back to life.

“It’s going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of people,” said Rep. John FlemingJohn Calvin FlemingCoast Guard suspends search for missing Ohio plane Freedom Caucus member to bring up bill on impeaching IRS chief GOP seeks to make it 52 MORE (R-La.).  

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPentagon: War in Afghanistan will cost billion in 2018 Overnight Finance: Senators near two-year budget deal | Trump would 'love to see a shutdown' over immigration | Dow closes nearly 600 points higher after volatile day | Trade deficit at highest level since 2008 | Pawlenty leaving Wall Street group Rand Paul calls for punishment if Congress can't reach a long-term budget deal MORE (R-Ky.), another presidential candidate, wants to attach an amendment to the bill blocking federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Mike Lillis contributed.

This story was updated at 8:43 p.m.